On the desk in front of me rests a ring in the shape of a serpent biting its own tail. It owes its presence there to an accretion of personal meanings that began when I was 7 or 8 and my father, a scientist who studies the structures of crystals and alloys, related an anecdote about the great German chemist Friedrich August Kekule. Kekule’s fame rests in large part on his discovery of the chemical structure of the benzene molecule in 1864—a structure which came to him in an astonishing dream. It was this dream which my father described to me; here is Kekule’s own account of it:
“I was sitting writing on my textbook, but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes… My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation; long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke… ”(1)
Waking research confirmed that benzene did indeed take the form of a closed ring—a hexagon with a carbon and hydrogen atom at each of its six points. But while my father’s principal aim was to illustrate the role of intuitive or unconscious thought in scientific inquiry, for me Kekule’s discovery was surpassed in significance by the nature of his dream’s imagery. To my child’s mind, the simple yet inscrutable image of the self-consuming serpent seemed to resonate with meanings far beyond benzene. What was it after, that weird snake? Did it want more of itself than just its tail? And what if it got it—what would be left? The very fact of its snakeness also intrigued me, hinting as it did of infinite wiles and poisonous persuasions. Could this be the same snake, or a relative of the snake, that had peddled illicit fruit in Eden? Was this baffling pose another of its tricks? Kekule’s choice of the word “mockingly” suggests it might be.
Kekule does not mention whether he had encountered this serpentine image before his famous dream, but it is likely he had seen it in a book or museum, for it is a symbol with a long history in many cultures(2). Snakes devouring themselves tail-first appear in medieval engravings, Celtic sculptures, Egyptian scrolls, Aztec glyphs, and most importantly, on the set of “Conan the Barbarian” (pictured above). The archetypal power of the image is not difficult to grasp—snakes are some of the most provocative creatures in human experience, signifiers of things fearsome, enigmatic, and forbidden, whose sinuous shapes and movements are fascinating because they are so unlike ours. Imagined in an act of paradoxical and unending autophagy, this already-symbolic beast cannot help but create new meanings in the receptive mind: “self-fecundation; disintegration and re-integration; truth and cognition complete… the potential before the spark of creation; the undifferentiated; the Totality; primordial unity; self-sufficiency, and the idea of the beginning and the end as being a continuous unending principle… It is a single image with the entire actions of a life cycle—it begets, weds, impregnates, and slays itself, but in a cyclical sense, rather than linear.”(3) Beyond this, it has always seemed to me a metaphor for the vast promise and the terrifying vagaries of human thought—emblem of those self-nourishing cognitive cycles that may lead with equal surety to masterworks or to madness.
But for me such symbolism extends beyond human thought to artificial intelligence. For technology is subject to its own recursive processes—what might be termed “machine neuroses”—that like their biological counterparts can consume vast energies while leading nowhere, or even backwards. Examples of such phenomena are myriad and various; one with which I am personally familiar involved a vast database organized into subject-specific categories. When a particular category was deemed relevant to another category, it could be connected to it via a linking program within the database. Usually this worked quite satisfactorily, and category A would show up in category B in accordance with their logical relationship. Things became vexing, however, when category A was linked to B and B in turn was linked back to A, forming a serpentine loop. When the program ran into such a relationship, it would become hopelessly stuck following the loop from A to B and back again, bringing the entire system to a halt. The only way to correct the problem was to remove the recursive connection, thereby preventing the database from biting its own tail, so to speak. Even if the connection made perfect sense within the context of A and B, the proper functioning of the larger system required that it be severed.
After my father’s instructive anecdote, Kekule’s serpent went dormant for a long while, finally re-emerging into awareness via one of Leonard Cohen’s better songs, “Last Year’s Man”(4), where it takes a markedly more carnal role: And when we fell together
all our flesh was like a veil
That I had to draw aside
to see the serpent eat its tail. I read Cohen’s usage of the symbol as representing the unity-from-duality embodied in the act of sex, with the two ostensibly discrete (if not discreet) participants revealed as complementary parts of the same serpent. A somewhat unsettling image (especially if you imagine ol’ Leonard in flagrante), but one which falls into an ancient category of meanings that tie the serpent to the idea of the androgyne: “The androgyne is the united male and female principles together. This is the prime primordial end to human endeavor, the reunion which births totality and creation. It is not unlike the idea of androgyny, which is a duality complete.”(5)
Eventually I found my way to incorporating this symbol into a story of my own. In one of its episodes, a starving prisoner describes a recurrent reverie that he finds oddly satisfying: Oh, I am so hungry. They have been starving me. When you are this hungry you begin to think of strange things. I heard a story once of a snake that swallowed its tail, then the lower part of its body, then the upper, then its head, and it was gone. Where there had been a snake there was only space, a shape in the air. It couldn’t happen, you say. Yes, but it did… They will be coming for me soon enough. I would like to deny them the pleasure. I would like there to be nothing left for them… That would be a trick. (6) The satisfaction the prisoner takes in this little story is twofold: he sees self-consumption as a means of sating his own hunger, and simultaneously as a means of escaping his captors by vanishing into thin air. While this is the most bizarre kind of autonomy imaginable, he embraces it because he has been denied any other. (This passage also presents a possible answer to one of the implicit questions posed by the symbol: what would be left if the snake got its way?)
Though I have been familiar with this archetypal image for a long time, I only learned its name very recently, in C’est Magnifique, a tiny shop on MacDougal Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. The shop was overseen by a burly silversmith named Al and his cat Fazool, who kept an eye on things from her perch on the counter. On one wall hung photos of Al with some of his famous customers, including Johnny Depp, Jim Jarmusch, and Iggy Pop; on another wall hung photos of Al’s favorite strippers.
In one of the display cases I spotted a silver ring with a familiar shape, and asked Al if I could see it. “That one—the airabarus?” he asked in an old-school Outer Boroughs accent. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, so I just pointed and said, “Um, the one with the snake.” And that was the one I ended up purchasing. Only later did I think to look up the word he had uttered so off-handedly, as someone might say “sandwich” or “cigarette.” After accounting for Al’s accent and trying several phonetic spellings in a noted search engine, I finally came up with the right one: “ouroboros,” a Greek word meaning, sensibly enough, “devouring the tail.”
If not for Al’s laconic intercession, I might never have gotten around to finding out what the strange symbol was called. Now that I have, the intriguing arc begun by Kekule’s serpent years ago has reached a satisfying closure—a closure at once enabled and embodied by the silver ouroboros on the desk in front of me.
Sources: 1. Roberts, Royston M. Serendipity, Accidental Discoveries in Science. John Wiley and Sons, New York, NY, 1989, pp. 75-81. 2. “Abacus - Ouroboros” Web site:
http://abacus.best.vwh.net/oro/ouroboros.html 3. Aynesworth, Chris. “The World Tree” Web site (currently offline). 4. Cohen, Leonard. “Last Year’s Man,” Stranger Music, Inc. (BMI), 1975. 5. “Spira Solaris and the Universal Ouroboros” Web site: http://www.spirasolaris.ca/sbb4f.html 6. Sass, Adam. The Hive. Gateway Hard Drive (64 MB). Berkeley, CA, 2001.